A Word for Wednesday

Notional - a. 1. Imaginary; ideal; existing in idea only; visionary; fantastical.
                        2. Dealing in imaginary things; whimsical; fanciful.

I know this word doesn't exactly fit the parameters of the challenge - I mean, how obscure can a word be if it's used in the Wall Street Journal? Not to mention that it's a pretty obvious, straightforward variant of "notion" - but it'll have to do. It was either notional or words like "nut-breaker," for which the definition was: [See Nutcracker]. And the definition of "nutcracker" is "an instrument used to crack nuts." Oh yes. There are days when I just want to tell my dictionary, "Really? That's all you have for me?"

So, notional it is. The entymology can be traced back to the 1590s, where it originated from the Latin notionalis, which in turn came from notus. The whimsical, or "full of whims," meaning didn't appear until 1791. Why that is, I have no idea, but it's interesting nonetheless. It seems to be used most often to discuss theological or economic concerns. St. Thomas Aquinas used it a number of times in his systematic theology, but I didn't take the time to transcribe them from GoogleBooks, especially since the context gets really confusing. The economic usage appears to be the modern use of the word as it appears in a number of newspaper and magazine articles discussing various economic issues.

Personally, I prefer the examples included in both Webster's 1828 Dictionary and
The Imperial Dictionary of the English Language. Two tiny sentences, by one Prior and one Bentley, are given right below the definition of this word. I tried to find something out about these two men, but my searches came out dry. Apparently, they were known and respected enough to be included in dictionary, but not famous enough to stand out to Google. Anyway, Prior uses it this way: "notional good, by fancy only made." And Bentley says this: "A notional and imaginary thing." Webster himself adds, "as a notional man" to the entry.

I think it's a great word that could easily be introduced back into the literary realm. There's no need for it be sequestered off for economic theorists. Fiction writers, by definition, are notional. We deal in the imaginary, in the fanciful. Our aim though is to take the notional, put it on paper, and thereby make it something that exists in actual form instead of something that exists "in idea only."

And now to use it myself...

"I was in the midst of deciphering the last scrawled line on the page when another book came crashing down on top of it. I jerked upright and coughed at the dust that puffed out of the decaying pages. Egbert braced his arms on the table and leaned towards me, his smile smug, his eyes mocking.

"Was that necessary?" I moved the volume off my open pages.

"I got your attention."

"What do you want?"

"I don't want anything. Father wants to speak to you. And Mother wants you to eat."

"Father wants to speak to me? Are you sure?"

He scowled. "Yes, I'm sure. Apparently, he's decided there's something of value in that notional mind of yours."

"Well." I took the candle and started for the door through the maze of stacked books and scattered scrolls. "I hope my notions don't disappoint."

"As do I, little brother."


A Word for Wednesday

Nugatory - a, 1. Trifling; vain; futile; insignificant.
                             2. Of no force; inoperative; ineffectual

This word seems to be used most in legal contexts, using the second definition. As in, laws are nugatory because enforcement of them is problematic or impossible. What's interesting, though, is that the etymology of the word has nothing to do with legalities. See here:

c. 1600, from L. nugatorius "worthless, futile," from nugator "jester, trifler," from nugatus, pp. of nugari "to trifle," from nugae "jokes, jests, trifles," of unknown origin.

I had never associated trifling with joking before, but apparently they're related words. Or, rather, they were related words at some point. Today, trifling means unimportant and joking means to poke fun. How those two things connect, I'm not sure. At some point, though, trifle was equivalent to jest and joke.

Regardless of how the meaning of those words diverged from each other, nugatory is akin to the trivial trifle, not the joking jest. Nugatory is also a word that was favored by one our country's best-known military men: George Washington. A man named Jared Sparks complied and published a collection of Washington's private and official communications in The Writings of George Washington. Here are some of the ways Washington used today's word:

"If we have no occasion for troops for the first purposes, and were certain of not wanting any for the second, then all the expense, of every nature and kind whatsoever on this score, would be equally nugatory and unjustifiable."

"In a word, the confederation appears to me to be little more than a shadow without the substance, and Congress a nugatory body, their ordinances being little attended to."

"It seems almost nugatory to dispute about the best mode of dealing with the Algerines, when we have neither money to buy their friendship, nor the means of punishing them for their depredations upon our people and trade."

"One of the reasons against it is a fear, that all the States will not be represented. As some of them appear to have been unwillingly drawn into the measure, their delegates will come with such fetters as will embarrass and perhaps render nugatory the whole proceeding."

Washington wasn't the only American general to use this word. U.S. Grant did as well, though not nearly as much. In closing one of his letters, which I found from The Memoirs of Three Civil War Generals, Vol. I: Ulysses S. Grant, he says this -

"Regretting that all my efforts for alleviating the sufferings of wounded men left upon the battle-field have been rendered nugatory, I remain, &c.,

U.S. Grant,

Between the two of them, I think Washington and Grant provide us a solid idea of how this word can be used with its different meanings. And now it's my turn to use it.

"I felt like one of the rats the were skittering around my feet - desperate and disgusting. I looked back. There was only fog in the alley behind me. I pulled the neck of my coat up and tugged my hat farther down. I passed 317 on my left, kicking something metal as I went by. The clatter was like thunder in my ears.

I reached 321. The two was upside down. I looked back. Still, only the fog had followed me. I knocked. The door opened. There was a table with a dirty oil lamp on it and one chair, but no man.

"Won't you come in, my good sir?"

My insides jumped at the voice. It was like velvet, or silk, but with a sinister thread. I tried to still my heart as I stepped inside.

"Please, take the chair."

I wanted nothing better than to face the darkness that hid that voice. Instead, I took four deliberate steps and sat down.

"With whom do I speak?" I asked.

A laugh sounded from the shadows, deep and rich. "I must offer my apologies, lady," he said. "For mistaking you for a gentleman."

"I shall gladly accept your apologies, should you reveal yourself," I said.

"Well then, I'm afraid I must remain an unforgiven wretch."

"A wretch you may very well be, but I am not concerned with the state of your existence. That is nugatory to me. You have something I need. I should like to procure it. Now, if you please."

I heard him move. One step toward me.  

"Nugatory? Indeed." Another step. "I did not think you so unkind." His voice morphed then, from velvet to diamond. "I am no trifle, madam, nor is my existence an insignificant thing. If you value your life, and the life you wish to save, remember that."


A Word for Wednesday

Noodle - n. A simpleton

I had no idea that "noodle" could be used to describe something besides pasta, did you? Now, I love pasta. I'm half-Italian. Spaghetti and all other forms pasta kind of come with the territory, along with meatballs and tomatoes and olive oil and garlic. So, imagine my surprise when I'm skimming through words and see that noodle is not defined as relating to food. I honestly did a double take. I've heard things like "limp noodle" used to describe people, but the idea is that they're spineless, not silly. This is a drastically different way to use a very common word, which makes it doubly fun :) 

Obviously, this is an obscure useage of the word. Normally obscurity isn't the problem, because the words themselves are distinctive. Well, try typing "noodle, literature" into Google. It doesn't work out very well, unless you want all manner of recipes and stories involving pasta - in which case that search works perfectly. So, I have no idea what the history of this word is, or when it stopped meaning simpleton and started meaning pasta. I was really wanted to know that too, because I'm sure the evolution of meaning would be fascinating.

Noodle tales seem to be a sub-genre under both folk lore and children's stories. I found a number of books with noodle in their titles. Things like The Book of Noodles: Stories of Simpletons or Fools and their Follies by William Alexander Clouston, and All of Our Noses are Here: And Other Noodle Tales by Alvin Schwartz.

I think it makes for a great dialogue. It's almost as fun as using nincompoop. Noodle is just easier to say ;)

"I started walking away. I hadn't taken more than ten steps before I felt mud splatter on my back.

"Go on, keep walking, you noodle," he said. 

I stopped. 

"Ignore him," Elaina took the crook of my arm and tugged. 

I started walking again. 

"Oh, well done," he said. "You're a real hero now, aren't you? Being led away by a girl. What a pair you make! The noddle and the ninny."

Elaina spun on him. "You shut your mouth!"
I grabbed her around the waist. "Ignore him," I said.  


A Word for Wednesday

Nimiety - n. [L. nimietas] The state of being too much

This word provides a nice contrast to last Wednesday's, don't you think? Last week was about nothingness; this week is about fullness. Actually, the idea of this word goes beyond fullness into excess. Superfluity is the perfect synonym for nimiety. Isn't it interesting how both too little and too much of things can become problematic? On the one hand, you can be consumed by the "nothingness" of life. On the other, you can be overwhelmed by the fullness of it. You can have too many things to do, too many places to go, too many people to see. If you spend too much time thinking about it, you can be buried by the excess existence of evil and hurt and cruelty in the world. Or, on the opposing end of the spectrum, you can be overwhelmed by all the beautiful and incredible things in the world because there are just too many to see or do, or even read about, in one lifetime.

I think nimiety is the opposite of nihility. Both define excessive positions so maybe, if they were combined, you'd arrive at moderation. Something like...nihimiety - the state of being in the middle ;)

That aside, I have two usage examples to share. One is actually from a Wall Street Journal article. This is the first time I've found one of my words in modern use. It's rather reaffirming to see that it's possible to incorporate these old words into today's dialogue, not just historically based stories. The article, On Eloquence, was written by Denis Donoghue. He says this: "Normally, we recognize an eloquent event as a flare of expression, an excess or superabundance of its qualities. But there are several kinds of eloquence. Some are thrilling in their audacity—they are prophetic, magical, sublime, we futilely say: if we tire of them or are not in the mood to appreciate their excesses, we say that they are pretentious, as Coleridge spoke of 'a nimiety, too-muchness.' Shakespeare's sonnets are such a case." 

The second is from The Westminister Review, Volume 125. I don't know what work is being reviewed here. I kept scrolling to try to find some context, but after about twenty pages I decided it didn't really matter all that much. This sentence actually has a similar idea to the supposed pretention mentioned in the last usage. Here it is: "The lines to the memory of Victor Hugo are finely expressed, though they err is respect of nimiety of sentiment and adulation." I see no problem with excessive adulation, especially of an author who's work you admire. I guess critics aren't so easily charmed. But that's all right. There's a place for clear, concise language. And there is also a place for works full of supposedly superfluous words - because those "excess" words can be what makes a page memorable; they can make up the audacious eloquence that Donoghue spoke of. I like eloquence and I like a certain amount of audacity. So I think a healthy dose of too-muchness every now and again could be a good thing :)

But onto today's story...

"You are too much sometimes, Evie, you really are."

"What did I do?"

She looked so innocent, so completely oblivious to her own behavior, as she stood there. I added the sheet to the stack in her arms and pulled the next one out of the clothespins. I could not believe I was having to explain things to her again.

"It's just that, well, you have this nimiety about you," I said. "Everything you do is excessive. Even your cooking is over the top. I love you, to pieces, but you really need to learn some moderation, Eve."

Before anyone else gets hurt, I added to myself.


A Word for Wednesday

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. I am running so very, very late today. I'm dreadfully behind on all your blogs, and even on returning comments on my own (so sorry!). And I miss being involved with all of you but, like everything else, blogs have seasons. I'm in the Bare-Minimum Season ;) Nonetheless, I am happy to introduce our newest letter of the alphabet - the straight-laced N - and give you November's first word:

Nihility - n. [L. nihilum, nihil, nothing; ne and hilum] Nothingness; a state of being nothing

I chose this word before I left for jiu-jitsu class. It took me till now (three hours later) to realize that it's related to nihilism. Yes, I am that tired and scatterbrained at the moment. Nihilism I recognize; it was one of the worldviews I studied in school. But nihility? It sounded all new and different and so I picked it. And I'm sticking with it because a) I'm already in the ni- pages and it's only the first week of the month so I can't be tremendously picky at this point, b) it is the parent word for nihilism and thus a form not regularly used, and c) it sounds great in dialogue, which makes things significantly easier for me when I'm in a time-crunch.

My search for the origins of this word, or any kind of history surrounding it, came up dry (unless you count the title of an heavy metal album, which I don't). Wordnik was quite helpful in providing some usage examples. I didn't recognize any of the authors - I suppose that's what happens after two weeks of Milton - but familiarity is hardly necessary to showcase use. The following passages are from The Three Cities Trilogy: Rome by Emile Zoa.

"[Pierre] had once visited a coal pit in Belgium, and here he found the same narrow passages, the same heavy, stifling atmosphere, the same nihility of darkness and silence. The flamelets of the candles showed merely like stars in the deep gloom; they shed no radiance around."

"Then, too, the eyes which [Bottecelli] bestowed on his figures, eyes of langour and passion, of carnal or mystical rapture, their joy at times so instinct with grief as they peer into the nihility of human things that no eyes in the world could be more impenetrable."

"And it was the sky then which became all purple and gold, displaying the infinite placidity of a supernatural radiance above the earth which faded into nihility."

"In vain did Pierre seek the Janiculum. In the depths of that ocean of nihility all sunk and vanished, Rome's four and twenty centuries, the ancient Palatine and the modern Quirinal, even the giant dome of St. Peter's, blotted out from the sky by the flood of gloom. And below him he could not see, he could not even hear the Tiber, the dead river flowing past the dead city."

"Ah! Those interminable and lugubrious passages, that frigid and gigantic staircase which seemed to descend into nihility, those huge halls with cracking walls where all was wretchedness and abandonment!"

What I like about these passages is that nihility can be used, and used well, to describe settings and atmosphere. Given that nihilism, as a school of thought, it focused entirely on the nothingness of human experience, I was afraid that nihility would have a similar focus. Certainly, it can be used to describe humanity (such as in the example regarding Bottecelli's paintings). I was quite pleasantly surprised, though, at how effectively it can be used to describe things like darkness and gloom and silence. It replaces the word "nothingness" rather nicely, and adds a ring of sophistication. Instead of saying something faded into nothing, you can say it faded into nihility. And that's a far more interesting way to put it, even though it means exactly the same thing. If you read the above passages again, inserting nothing or nothingess wherever nihility is, you'll see what I mean. The sentences have a different sound to them that evokes a different feeling. There's more foreboding. Nihility sounds like a place the stairs lead to, instead of them just going nowhere. Does that makes sense? I feel like I'm talking in circles. So, I'm going to move onto the story before I get dizzy ;)

"Welcome to the underworld, gents." Torch-light threw shadows over the man's face. He was hardly visible; his dirt-grimed form just another shade of black. "I'll brook no nonsene from the lot of you. I don't care where you're from. I don't care what your story is. You're mine now. That's all I care about. Now get to work."

I took the pick I was handed, and the shovel that was slammed into my side when I spared a glance at my surroundings. I followed the others forward. I was crawling soon, the earth around me everywhere with a clamy embrace. The tunnel opened soon enough into a cavern. There were hundreds of men. Some boys even. All of them picking away at the walls, with sharp, rythmic rings. I headed for an open space before one of the foreman could shove me into a place. I sunk the pick into the rock, and was slammed onto my back.

"Are you ready?" A pair of wide, bloodshot eyes was all I saw. "Are you ready for the darkness?"

I shoved him off me but he only grabbed me again.

"Are you ready for gloom and despair? Are you ready for the nihility of this place? It will consume you. Be ready."

He let go and hobbled off into the shadows until he disappeared entirely.